I first laid eyes on Alistair MacLeod in June 2007 in Dublin, Ireland. I was there guiding a group of twenty or so students from California State University, Long Beach through Joyce's Dubliners and Ulysses. We walked the walk and talked the talk on the sites of those two great books for three weeks, staying in a youth hostel up near Stephens' Green and hiking down each rainy morning to Trinity College where the English Department was kind enough to provide me with a classroom. I love Dublin, having spent a year there with my family as a Senior Fulbright Fellow, and I enjoyed sharing it with my California students; I was especially happy that my younger daughter, who had just started in her first year as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, was with me. We were lucky in 2007, for we were there not only for Bloomsday but also for the Dublin Literary Festival.
I had never met Alistair MacLeod before, had never even seen a photograph of him. But as my daughter and I were setting in the lobby of the Peacock Theatre, a small venue adjacent to the famous Abbey Theatre, waiting for the reading by MacLeod and the wonderful young writer Claire Keegan, I watched a stout, red-faced man in an tweed cap come into the lobby and set down a worn briefcase. I have to admit that I was then guilty of a bit of professorial profiling, for I felt sure I knew who this man was—so sure that I asked him, "What are you reading for us today?" He smiled and said, "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun." And I smiled and said, "Wonderful, that's my favorite."
And read it he wonderfully did, a tour-de-force of the ancient storyteller’s art that transformed everyone in that theatre into enrapt listeners, hunched close to catch every nuance, like peasants around an Irish fireplace. The story begins, “Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond. She was large and gray, a sort of staghound from another time.” I can hear Alistair MacLeod's voice now, telling the tale of a man rescuing a dog after it was run over by a cart when he saw the silhouette of its small crushed body beneath the mud, interjecting the phrase "as the story goes" occasionally as a tale of violence and inevitability unfolds—a powerful story about the terrors that haunt our dreams.
I ran into Alistair MacLeod again three years later in Toronto at a conference on the short story where I was on a panel with friends and colleagues discussing Alice Munro's story "Passion." We sat at the same table one day for lunch and chatted about a few things. I did not ask him if he remembered our brief meeting in Dublin. He laughed a lot as we talked about very little—just lunchtime chatter. Somehow, we got to talking about whiskey, and he laughed that he had a couple of bottles of very good whisky that he had been given in the past, but that he still had not opened because he felt the whisky was too good for him. Then, it was my turn to laugh, for I told him that I had a bottle of Middleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey, 1993, that one of my graduate students gave me some fifteen years ago. I had been waiting for a special occasion to open it and share it, but so far had managed to forget. And I sure as the devil knew that it was much too good for me. He had I both agreed we were quite satisfied with the middle shelf stuff and had always left the top shelf to our betters.
My younger daughter, now in her twenties, married, with a child of her own, loves Ireland, and she also loves my home state Kentucky. A few years ago, the two of us flew back to the mountains for a visit. With a great deal of pleasure, I showed her all the places I knew as a child. And when we went to the old family graveyard, I pointed to where I wanted to be and exacted a promise that she would carry my ashes back here on her lap and bury them in this spot surrounded by family. I told her I had a small oak box in my study at home, which currently housed a rare bottle of Irish whiskey that I have hoarded for several years. I keep saying that I am going to drink it, but I can’t get over the feeling that it is too high-shelf good for me. The fact of the matter is, I probably take some comfort in knowing that it serves a current noble purpose--I mean, after all, it is very fine whiskey—and that once empty, the box will sit there idle waiting for…well, you know what. My daughter even wrote a story in a creative writing class about carrying out my request. And when I read it, it caused the kind of shiver that used to make folks feel somebody was walking on their grave.
Last year I agreed to deliver a keynote address at the Canadian Literature Symposium on May 9-11; the symposium this year focuses on the short stories of Alice Munro, and, although I am not an Alice Munro specialist, I happen to know a few things about the short story. I have been looking forward to the symposium not only because I am such a great fan of Alice Munro, but also because I knew that Alistair MacLeod was going to be there. I wanted to tell him that right after the conference, when I returned home, my wife and I were driving to Tucson, Arizona, where my younger daughter was to receive her Ph.D. in literature. I think I read somewhere that two of his six children were also literature professors. I wanted to tell him that I was finally going to open that Very Rare bottle of 1993 Middleton Irish whiskey, for even if I did not feel I was worth it, I knew for sure that she was.
When I got online this past Monday morning and saw that Alistair MacLeod had died, I cursed and cried and listened to a reading of "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun," and had a drink of middle shelf Irish whiskey.
In his brief essay in The Writing Lie, which Constance Rooke edited as a fundraiser for PEN Canada a few years ago, Alistair MacLeod said he is pleased that his work seems to have "struck a responsive chord that sounds the note of our shared humanity." Maybe this is what the writing life is all about, Professor MacLeod says, "a life of communication which helps us to recognize the great within the small and make us feel less lonely than we are." He says he believes that writing is a communicative act in which the writer is sending out letters to the world, and that he or she is hopeful that the world will receive the letters and be affected in some way. "Perhaps," Professor MacLeod says, "the world will write back."
Rest in Peace, Professor MacLeod. This is just me writing back.